I am trying to think of the first time I realized I love cooking. Because from my last post you know I didn’t have the best of starts – as much as I love vanilla, vanilla chicken is not a very appetizing dish. Still I persisted. The first few months we ate a lot of crazy food. My roommate and I had a very good Tam Bram friend and so I tried to make sambhar a few times. Unfortunately I didn’t have my mom’s recipe on that. And honestly I have never had such bad sambhar in my life. Thick, low on tomatoes, sickly sour on tamarind. Still we ate a lot of it with fried potatoes AND potato chips! I can still remember how my teeth felt after eating all that sour food – they felt like they were going to crack.
Then there were our daily dals and subzis which were alright I suppose. I mean, how bad can you make a dal? Plus my roommate was more experienced at cooking than me since she had been living away from home for a few years and so had the basics down. She especially made a mean whole moong dal which renewed my love for the dal. It has such character, as if wearing the outer coat or chilka, makes the dal more gentlemanly than the “naked” version. It has a nutty flavor while the split version tastes like, well it tastes like khichdi and sickness and all the undesirable things in life; we always got moong dal khichdi when we got sick as kids. But the tortillas! I cannot imagine eating tortillas and dal ever again in my life. We had such a block against making rotis; we thought it was the hardest thing in the world. It is still not easy for me and especially not something you want to do after a day in grad school; so we ate the store bought flour tortillas. They were thicker than rotis and mildly sweet and did not go with Indian food at all. Still we ate them and added in some pickle to spice things up. Which after a year of doing ended up giving me hyper acidity. But that is another story.
Then there was the weekend masala making sessions. My mom advised me to make the onion-ginger-garlic-tomato masala over the weekend and freeze it so it would make my weekday cooking would become easier. I did that sometimes after I was done with homework. It was such a pain! Cooking the onions-ginger-garlic took forever because I was inexperienced and did it on slow-medium. Then when I put the tomato paste in, there would be this candy sweet smell wafting through the kitchen – not at all like the smell from my mothers kitchen which was sweet and spicy. I think it may have been the tomato paste I was using – it was too sweet and I was putting in tonnes of the stuff until the masala was red. I would spend so much time making it and then mid-week the memory of the red, sweet masala sitting in the freezer put me off so much that I would rather make something simple and fresh!
And finally the aloo-beans subzi. The simplest of subzis and one of my favorites which, believe it or not, I still did not get down until I moved to California! I always made it using a packet of frozen chopped beans and carrots and skipped the potatoes – one less thing to cut. It ended up tasting steamed and bland – the spices would never get absorbed into the vegetables. I tried repeatedly and ultimately started hating beans-carrot subzi. Every time I would visit home I would ask mom for aloo-beans subzi and wonder why I couldn’t make it myself. But research and other things in life kept me from doing some serious analysis on the issue. Until I reached California and found the time to buy beautiful fresh green beans and cut them up myself. Several attempts later I figured out that the fresh veggies make all the difference. Cutting them up either into a fine dice or thin strips helps the spices penetrate the veggie and adding potatoes is important because they round out the flavors in the beans and the spices. Such bliss to recreate one of my childhood favorites!
After all these food disasters-and despite them, I continued cooking and enjoying it, but still can’t remember exactly when I fell in love with the process. I do remember though when I acknowledged the fact for the first time. After moving to California, I was having a conversation with a friend from Chicago, someone who had come down to Columbus, Ohio during my first few months there and very graciously made puris and parathas for us poor food deprived souls after I complained to her that I couldn’t cook and missed eating puris and parathas. I told her that I had started cooking a lot since moving and she said, “I knew you would.” I was surprised. “How?” I asked. “You love eating and when you love eating that much, you find a way to cook and recreate the foods you love.” Need I say more?